Carbon Offsets Count

ignoratio elenchi n.
A logical fallacy of presenting an argument that may in itself be valid, but has nothing to do with the proposition it purports to prove. Also known as “irrelevant conclusion”. [Lat. ignorance of refutation.]

Al Gore’s response to charges of being an energy hog was that he buys carbon offsets to neutralize his carbon emissions. This sounded bogus to a lot of people, but in fact it’s not.

The concept of carbon offsets is simple. If your lifestyle uses a lot of energy and you like the way you live, you can still reduce your carbon footprint by funding the negation of carbon emissions elsewhere. Carbon offsets work because the source of CO2 doesn’t matter – only total CO2 in the atmosphere matters.

This isn’t clear to everybody. “Another stab at carbon offsets” on argues that it’s illogical to say, “I am pouring tons of carbon into the air with my transportation needs, so I will therefore . . . increase the supply of electricity in Kansas.” Yes, that’s illogical, but it’s not what carbon offsets do! Carbon offsets wouldn’t increase the supply of electricity in Kansas, they would reduce carbon emissions in Kansas.

A tale of two markets“, also on, argues that buying offsets doesn’t work because some offsets don’t deliver what they promise. It’s true that some offsets don’t deliver, but many do. That said, you do need to make a careful choice when buying offsets. To help you evaluate, Environmental Defense has established criteria for valid offsets, and we provide links to portfolios of high-quality offsets that meet our criteria.

One other thing to note… Some investments that are good for the climate do not strictly qualify as offsets. For example, some energy companies sell “Green Certificates” or “Renewable Energy Certificates” (RECs) – money you give to the power company for investment in clean energy. Encouraging investment in green technology is good, but doesn’t offset your emissions because there is no direct link between your purchase and the power company’s purchase of clean energy.

In addition to misinformation, the news is swimming with Ignoratio Elenchi arguments against carbon offsets. “The Corporate Carbon Offset Craze” argues that buying offsets can’t work because it’s so easy to do. Huh? “The Carbon Neutral Myth?“, discussing a report from Carbon Trade Watch [PDF], argues that buying offsets encourages energy use by assuaging guilt. If buying offsets assuages guilt, it’s because it works. And there’s no reason to think that people would conserve more if carbon offsets weren’t available. If people don’t want to make a big effort and buying carbon offsets is easy, then how great that it’s an option!

But this week’s Ignoratio Elenchi Award goes to the Wall Street Journal for “An Inconvenient Pool“, which argues that carbon offsets don’t work because not everyone can afford to buy them. First of all, most middle class Americans can afford to buy offsets, but regardless – there’s no reason why everybody has to buy offsets for them to work.

The going rate for offsets in the U.S. is about $4 per ton. Since the average family emits 24 tons of CO2 per year, most of us can become climate neutral for about $100 per year – that’s 27 cents a day.

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  1. Enrique
    Posted March 8, 2007 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t be more effective if all change are consumption patterns?
    The earth is dying becuase we are stuck in our story me and my needs. Of course, in the US, we all have more than we need.

  2. Posted March 9, 2007 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Buying offsets doesn’t mean you aren’t also reducing consumption. People who care enough to buy offsets probably also use compact fluorescents, energy saving appliances, recycle what they can, etc. But even with your best efforts, it’s virtually impossible to reduce your carbon emissions to zero – except by purchasing offsets.

    We need every possible tool in the fight against global warming. If offsets help, why reject them because doing something else also will help?

  3. Enrique
    Posted March 11, 2007 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Hi Bill:

    I am not rejecting carbon trade. For everything I have read and I am just a citizen, Even if we stop producing C02 right now, the Earth will continue to warm up.
    There are 150 plus coal-plants in the drawing board in the U.S. alone.
    I completel agree with you. Every little thing helps. The fastest way to stop the madness is to change our beliefs that consumption is the key to happiness.
    For example, I will be complete off the energy grid in 5 years. In order to that, I need to install solar panels which it will cost around $18,000. Well, There is a trade-off. I won’t be buying a new car either.
    The mantra could be dream globably, act locally, go solar and buy a hydrogen power car.

  4. Posted March 13, 2007 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    There was a good article in the NY Times the other day about carbon offsets – worth a look:

  5. josephmx
    Posted May 17, 2007 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Hi, I have just seen test data on a new product developed in Brazil and will be available here in the US very soon. It is called the Blade by Sabertec – They had the product tested at an EPA approved testing lab in Ontario California. This product increases feul economy. The gentleman at the lab told me “it works” he doesnt know how but he said it definately works. The EPA has tested over 109 gas saving products and has not yet seen one work. I tried this on my car and increases my mileage by 2 MPG. I recomeend anyone who is concerned about emissions from their cars look into this product. I will never drive a car without this product on it…

  6. JunkInJunkOut
    Posted November 9, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Europeans know very well in future their economies cannot grow much, and they see they cannot remain towards the top. So they craft this carbon cap trade racket to slow down the faster growing economies.
    It is important to know what this noise is all about.

  7. Posted November 15, 2007 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Junk – that’s a silly comment. The fact is, cap-and-trade can be incredibly effective. Witness what happened with acid rain, which was solved through a cap-and-trade program. We met our goals at a tenth of the anticipated costs. Here’s a link with more info:

  8. Posted January 7, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Trade in carbon offets as a solution to global warming is worse than doing nothing because it diverts both resources and attention away from from what we _should_ be doing to properly respond to the threats of global warming. For more details, including ideas about better reponses, see

  9. John Smith
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    There are a lot of theories and opinions connected with global warming, some say we cannot do anything about it and some say we can. I think we should try doing what we can instead of discussing what is right and what is wrong to do. Personally, I believe that we should do something or at least try, which a lot of projects make it easier for us to do. I found one at a point, which I started supporting, because I figured that this project would help, where it was most needed and I still think they do. Will it make a difference? Hopefully. What if it does not have a large impact? Well, at least I did what I figured would be best. Feel free to check it out if you like: Just follow the link and see for yourself if the project is worth supporting. :D

    As a final note: Do what you think is the best thing to do, I know I am and I hope it works out just great, making the Earth a decent place to live for the generations to come.

5 Trackbacks

  • […] Carbon offsets have been in the news a lot lately because Al Gore said he used them, much to the derision of some misinformed people (see my post on carbon offsets). The funniest of these potshots came from the Web site, which says: […]

  • […] We think our offset program counts, but since this is a new and emerging market, we expect to learn as we go, and we’ll be transparent with you along the way. In fact, we’d like your help in all this — we want your inventive and creative ideas for potential offset projects. Please weigh in over at Yahoo! Answers. And read more about our overall approach here. […]

  • […] We think our offset program counts, but since this is a new and emerging market, we expect to learn as we go, and we’ll be transparent with you along the way. In fact, we’d like your help in all this — we want your inventive and creative ideas for potential offset projects. Please weigh in over at Yahoo! Answers. And read more about our overall approach here. […]

  • By YahooO2 | RealGood on April 18, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    […] I didn’t realize offsets, which have become a bit of a corporate greening trend these days in IT are apparently controversial or at least a subject of debate. Hey, anything equivalent to taking 25K cars off the streets seems like a good thing, net effect or not it’s a step in the right direction and hopefully will cause others to outdo each other and compete to be more green than the next guy. […]

  • […] Some feel that offsets are just a way for people to absolve themselves of guilt without making difficult changes. For example, someone who drives a gas-guzzling hummer can buy offsets and then say they aren’t contributing to global warming. Of course it’s better if people minimize their emissions then offset the rest. But regardless, offsets lead to less greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s a good thing. (To learn more about offsets, see this earlier post.) […]